CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is heading into Venezuela's first opposition primary warning that Hugo Chavez's foes must choose a strong candidate if they want to win back the presidency and halt the country's slide into chaos.
Capriles is convinced he's that candidate and will win Sunday's vote as he promises to implement policies that will break with Chavez's socialist model.
"Chaos is what we have now in Venezuela," Capriles told foreign journalists Tuesday, citing rampant crime, Latin America's worst inflation and other pressing domestic problems.
The 39-year-old former congressman and current governor of central Miranda state, which includes part of Caracas, said he is looking forward to challenging Chavez in the presidential election scheduled for Oct. 7.
"The game will begin on Feb. 13," said Capriles, who is the front-runner among the five candidates in the opposition primary.
Chavez, a 57-year-old leftist ex-paratroop commander who says he is recovering from cancer, has vowed to win the 2012 presidential vote and another six-year term, his fourth.
Capriles said that if he wins the presidential election he will eventually lift strict foreign currency exchange controls that Chavez set in 2003 as a means of stemming capital flight in the wake of a short-lived 2002 coup and 2003 national strike that crippled the economy.
Capriles also has been an outspoken critic of Chavez's close ties with communist-led Cuba and Iran's strict Islamic regime, and he suggested he would make changes to Venezuela's foreign policy, which has been centered on forging strong ties with adversaries of the United States.
He also scoffed at Chavez's efforts to portray him as a pawn of the U.S. government. "I'm not an imperialist," he said.
The opposition leader comes from an upper middle-class family but his promotion of food and housing assistance programs as Miranda governor has made inroads among poor Venezuelans, who have traditionally been Chavez's support base.
Capriles largely avoids direct confrontation with Chavez, seldom mentioning the president by name even when he criticizes him.
At a news conference Tuesday, Capriles likened the campaign leading up to the presidential ballot to a race between "a horse that's tired," meaning Chavez, and another that is "filled with energy."
Capriles' leading rival according to the polls is Pablo Perez, the 42-year-old governor of western Zulia state and another fresh face in the opposition. Perez's potential advantages include support in Venezuela's second largest state and the campaign experience of the established Social Christian and Democratic Action parties, which have backed him instead of politicians from within their own ranks.
Perez has taken the place of his political mentor Manuel Rosales, who was handily defeated by Chavez in the 2006 presidential election. Rosales fled to Peru in 2009 after officials filed corruption accusations that he says were trumped up for political reasons.
Perez has condemned several high-ranking military officers for publicly voicing political support for the president, a violation of constitutional norms aimed at maintaining the impartiality of the armed forces, and he criticized Chavez for welcoming the backing.
Capriles singled out Defense Minister Henry Rangel Silva and army Gen. Cliver Alcala Cordones, commander of a tank division in the city of Maracay, for taking sides with Chavez while criticizing leaders of Venezuela's diverse yet increasingly united opposition movement.
"They disrespect the armed forces when they take political positions," he said.
Venezuela's once-fractured opposition has been emboldened by a strong showing in 2010 congressional elections, and has united to hold the presidential primary at a time when polls indicate Chavez's adversaries have gained ground.
Capriles forecast a big turnout, saying he expects at least 2 million of Venezuela's 18 million registered voters to participate in the primary.
Associated Press writer Ian James in Caracas contributed to this report.